One, two, three, four – we opened up the Iron Door
By Judy Maltz
This year marks the 25th anniversary of a mass immigration wave that would ultimately bring more than one million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Its impact on Israeli society has been nothing short of profound.
Among the immigrants who flooded Israel’s shores after the Iron Curtain fell – and who today account for nearly one out of every five Jews in the country – were doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers, ballerinas, violinists, athletic trainers, writers, poets, hairdressers, masseuses, factory workers and farmers.
New immigrants with gas masks in the absorption room at Ben-Gurion International Airport, February 1991. Natan Alpert/GPO
By most accounts, this Russian aliyah – as it has come to be known, even though the majority of the immigrants to Israel did not come from Russia proper – is a remarkable success story.
“Within a few years, Israel had to absorb about 20 percent of its population,” notes former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who became the best-known symbol of the international human-rights movement that fought to bring these immigrants here. “There is no other example in the world of such a successful integration.”
‘It’s a very different concept of immigration, which skips the stage of integration and goes straight to leadership.’
They have brought to Israel not only the musicians, but also the audiences.
But Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist and co-author of “The Million that Changed the Middle East,” a book that explores the effects of this immigration wave, insists that “integration” is the wrong term.
“They never for a second were looking for integration,” she says. “They were looking for leadership. It’s in their nature. It’s in their genes. It’s in their education. And they said it openly – we are here not just to integrate, we don’t necessarily admire your culture, we don’t necessarily admire the country, but we know how to improve it, and we are out to make it better and we know how. It’s a very different concept of immigration, which skips the stage of integration and goes straight to leadership.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that they would do well, considering all the brainpower, culture, discipline and drive these new immigrants brought along with them. But that is easy enough to say in hindsight.